The tragedy of Palestine is its cast of shortsighted characters

None of those who can shape a bright future for ordinary Palestinians can see beyond the end of their noses

Displaced Palestinians in the remains of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school in central Khan Younis, Gaza, on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.  International negotiators, including from the US, are at a delicate phase in talks to pause or end the seven-month war — a deal that would include the exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners and an increase of humanitarian aid to the embattled coastal strip.  Photographer: Ahmad Salem / Bloomberg
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It’s important to tread carefully when trying to analyse the current state of the US-Israeli strategic relationship.

This is on account of their ongoing rift over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on a ground operation into Rafah. US President Joe Biden opposes this move, fearing a humanitarian crisis and the potential massacre of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

There are, and will continue to be, consequences for Hamas’s Operation Al Aqsa Flood on October 7, which triggered Israel’s ferocious retaliation. It is bringing about an inevitable shift to the governing structure in Gaza, with significant implications for the demographic landscape after this mass displacement. It will also have huge consequences for a region teetering on the brink of collapse.

To be sure, a new regional map is emerging from both on-the-ground developments and the US’s incoherent policies, as Washington finds itself caught between diplomatic overtures to Israel and Iran, and domestic political pressures ahead of Mr Biden’s re-election campaign.

Mr Biden’s threat to suspend US arms shipments to Israel, while representing an unprecedented development, does not signify a pivotal shift in the US-Israeli strategic relationship, which – strained as it may be – is not facing an existential crisis. Further, Mr Biden has directed his team to continue collaborating with Israel “to permanently defeat” Hamas, making it clear that the US has not yet made a final decision regarding the provision of the type of munitions previously used by Israel to cause civilian casualties.

Should Israel proceed, as anticipated, with its incursion into Rafah, the Biden administration could escalate its rhetoric and may even suspend further arms shipments. But it won’t forsake Israel in its struggle against Hamas.

Netanyahu appears determined to go through with the Rafah operation. This presents a 'lose-lose' scenario

The Biden administration is currently paying the price for the mistakes it made over the past seven months.

It convinced itself that the October 7 attack presented an opportunity for Washington to broker a major Middle East settlement, particularly through the prism of a US-Iran understanding. This understanding became a priority, as it leaned on the Iranian regime for diplomatic conciliation – despite Tehran’s activities against American interests and sites via proxy. It also leaned on Israel for diplomatic accommodation – despite the latter’s systematic destruction of Gaza, transforming it into a wasteland and forcibly displacing more than a million Palestinian civilians, leaving them with nowhere to escape or seek shelter, as they now face the prospect of annihilation in Rafah.

Sure, the US may have prevented the Gaza war from turning into a full-blown regional conflict between Iran and Israel. However, the policy of finding temporary solutions and a reliance on transitional arrangements – hallmarks of the Biden administration – have led us to where we are now. Indeed, the Biden team missed an opportunity to bring about the historic changes it hoped for, because it did not outline a roadmap.

One of its biggest mistakes was falling into the trap set by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, who believed that Israel would be forced to negotiate with him to exchange Hamas-held hostages for Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons. The Biden team fell into the trap of negotiating with Mr Sinwar, despite Washington’s long-held position of not negotiating with groups that it classifies as terrorist organisations – including Hamas. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prioritised the release of the hostages, thus linking their fate to a ceasefire.

Moreover, the ceasefire negotiations weren’t solely conducted with Hamas but also involved the Islamic Jihad Movement and the Popular Front. This misstep is likely to haunt Mr Biden’s electoral campaign, which the American political right and the Jewish lobby in the country are poised to exploit.

Today, Mr Netanyahu appears determined to go through with Israel’s Rafah operation. This presents a “lose-lose” scenario, also considering the risk it poses to the hostages. Israel’s attempts to “liberate” these hostages through military means are likely to fail, as they are not kept in one location but dispersed across several sites. Consequently, its military operations could also result in casualties among them.

With negotiations going nowhere, Israel’s war cabinet appears to believe that it has no recourse other than to pursue its brutal operation, which would inevitably lead to the massacre of many ordinary Palestinians trapped in Rafah. This is despite international condemnation and a possible escalation of tensions with the US.

Hamas, in the process, may believe it has secured a win over Israel in the court of international public opinion. But the reality is that both entities have been oppressors in the context of this war, with the true victims being the Palestinian people and their cause.

Meanwhile, the danger remains of the conflict extending beyond Gaza and the West Bank, into Lebanon, which Hezbollah has turned into an open arena for Iranian-backed Palestinian factions. In the process, it is holding ordinary Lebanese people hostage to Tehran’s geopolitical ambitions. It’s worth pointing out that the Axis of Resistance has achieved little but fragment Palestine and all-but-end its cause – thanks to Hamas, whose October 7 attack is the very event that led to the Israeli army’s return to Gaza and the forced displacement of more than a million Palestinians.

Hamas has failed on another count, too. Part of the objective of its attack was to obstruct any diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and key Arab powers. While this process has stalled, at least for now, it is just as true that relations between the US and the Gulf countries have evolved dramatically – a development that probably worries Tehran. Major security agreements are being formulated in the wider region, with even countries deemed to be close to Hamas – such as Turkey and Qatar – further deepening relations with Washington.

At the same time, however, there is still no roadmap to a genuinely peaceful Middle East. Sadly, there is unlikely to be one, as long as the Biden administration remains in disarray, oscillating between symbolic, transitional and patchwork measures devoid of a consistent policy and decisiveness.

Published: May 12, 2024, 2:00 PM